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LINUX, the free computer operating system developed by
thousands of volunteers collaborating over the
Internet, is still not taken very seriously in
corporate circles. It is used for niche tasks, such as
running web servers, but it is generally deemed to be
too immature for the most demanding environments, such
as heavy-duty database systems. Recent events,
however, suggest that Linux?whose mascot is a cheerful
penguin?may have outgrown the commune of its birth.

On January 4th, Linus Torvalds, the Finnish programmer
who co-ordinates the development of Linux (see
article), quietly released the latest version of the
Linux kernel?the software that, as its name suggests,
is at the core of the operating system. Many of the
enhancements in this new kernel (version 2.4) make
Linux more suitable for corporate use. In particular,
they make it more ?scalable??in other words, as
capable of working on very large computer systems as
on small ones. Linux 2.4 can support more processors,
more memory, and faster networking and disk access?all
prerequisites for industrial-strength corporate use.

Just as the software itself has become more solid, so
support for Linux within the computer industry has
also been growing. IBM, which has embraced Linux
across its product range, from PCs to mainframes,
announced in December that it would spend $1 billion
on Linux-related activities in 2001. And this week the
Open Source Development Laboratory, an independent,
not-for-profit research centre financed by such
industry giants as IBM, Intel and Dell, opened its
doors. It is intended to accelerate the adoption of
Linux in business computing, and to allow developers
to test their software on the largest systems. In
other words, with the notable exceptions of Microsoft
and Sun Microsystems, the industry is pushing Linux
for use in corporate computing.

Linux is also proving a popular choice for powering
Internet appliances, such as handheld computers and
smart telephones. And, at the other end of the scale,
it is emerging as a powerful force in the specialist
field of supercomputing. By connecting hundreds of PCs
running Linux in a ?cluster?, it is possible to
construct an enormously powerful machine for a
fraction of the cost of a conventional supercomputer.
IBM recently started installing a 1,024-processor
Linux supercomputer at Shell?s research centre in the
Netherlands, where the oil company plans to use it to
analyse geophysical data and to help it find oil. And
on January 16th, America?s National Centre for
Supercomputing Applications said that it had agreed to
buy two Linux supercomputers from IBM, one of which
will be the fourth-fastest supercomputer in the world
when it is switched on this summer.

There are some fears that the embrace of Linux by big
computing companies could prove a mixed blessing.
George Weiss of Gartner, a research firm, suggests
that IBM, in particular, ?looms like a shadow? over
the future of Linux; its obvious enthusiasm, he says,
might deter new firms from entering the market for
Linux support and services. Any attempt by big
computing companies to hijack Linux, declares Eric
Raymond, an open-source guru, would be
counter-productive, since it would alienate the very
people from whom Linux draws its strength. Yet it is
inevitable, as Linux becomes increasingly popular,
that it will shed the revolutionary cachet which, for
some of its supporters, is its greatest appeal.

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